Tuesday, October 26, 2004

"Ten Nights' Dreams" Soseki Natsume 4

[This is my translation of the fourth story in "Ten Nights' Dreams" by Soseki Natsume. For more information about the book and the author, please refer to my comment. And of course, I'd appreciate your feedback.]

The Fourth Night

At the center of the earthen floor are several low tables, surrounded by small stools. The tables throw back jet-black glare. In a corner, an old man drinks to himself, with a legged tray in front of him. The side dish appears to be boiled down vegetables.

The Sake has turned the old man fairy red. Beside, his face is lustrous, with no trace of anything that can be called a wrinkle. His being old can only be fathomed by his abundant white beard. Even as a child, I wondered how old the old man was. Right then the hostess appeared from the back with a bucket filled with water from the water duct.

Drying her hands with her apron she asked, “How old are you?”

The old man swallowed the vegetable that had crammed his mouth, and said with a straight face, “I’ve lost count.”

The hostess stood there, studying the old man’s face, with her dried hands tucked under the narrow sash. The old man gulped down his Sake with a large vessel like a rice bowl, and took a lengthy exhalation through his white beard. The hostess asked, “where’s your place?”

Holding his long breath he said, “behind the bellybutton.”

The hostess asked again, with her hands still tucked under the narrow sash, “where are you going?”

Again the old man gulped down his hot Sake with the large vessel like a rice bowl, gave a sigh like the previous one, and said, “over there.”

“Straight ahead?” As the hostess inquired, his breath passed through the paper screen, ducked under the willow tree, and went straight toward the riverbanks.

The old man went out. I followed. A small gourd hangs at his waist. Under an arm he holds a square box strapped to his shoulder. He has pale blue underpants and a pale blue sleeveless kimono on. Only his socks are yellow. They appeared to be made of leather.

The old man went straight to the willow tree. A couple of kids were under the tree. With a smile the old man pulled a handkerchief out of his waist. He twined it into a lean rope. Then placed it on the ground. And drew a large circle around the handkerchief. At last he produced, from his box hung from his shoulder, a brass whistle of a candy seller.

“In no time the handkerchief turns into a snake. Look, look.” He chanted.

The kids stared at the handkerchief intently. I also looked.

“Look, look. You ready?” The old man said, and started to jump around the circle, blowing his flute. I fixed my eyes on the handkerchief. But it wouldn’t give a sign of movement.

The old man whistled on and on, and jumped around the circle many more times. On the tips of his straw sandals’ toes, as if stepping over something, as if in an attempt to avoid disturbing the handkerchief, he went around. It seemed chilling. It also seemed amusing.

After a while he abruptly stopped blowing the whistle. Then opened the box hung from his shoulder, picked up the handkerchief by the neck, and threw it into the box.

The old man started to walk straight ahead, muttering, “Wait a while, and it’ll become a snake in the box. I’ll let you have a look soon, I’ll let you have a look soon.” Passing under the willow tree, he walked down the narrow straight path. Because I wanted to see a snake, I followed him all along the narrow path. The old man kept walking, muttering alternately “anytime soon, you’ll see,” and “ a snake, you’ll see”.

He walked on, singing.

“Anytime soon, it will be. A snake, it will be. No doubt, it will be. The whistle is blowing.” Singing, he came to the riverbanks. With no trace of a bridge nor a boat, I thought he would take a rest here and show the snake in the box, but he waded into the water. First it was about knee deep, then gradually the water reached his waist, then his chest. Nonetheless, the old man went on and on, straight ahead, singing.

“Deepening, darkening, straightening.” At last his beard, his face, his head, and his hood were obliterated.

Thinking that the old man would show the snake when he reached the other side, I stood alone among the rustling reeds, and waited forever. But the old man never emerged.


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